Terence Young recently retired from teaching English and creative writing at St. Michaels University School. He is a co-founder and former editor of The Claremont Review, an international literary journal for young writers. His first collection of poetry, The Island in Winter (Véhicule Press, 1999), was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary Award and the Gerald Lampert Award. Since then, he has published several books: a collection of stories, Rhymes With Useless, which was one of two runners-up for the annual Danuta Gleed award; a novel, After Goodlake’s, which received the City of Victoria Butler Book Prize in 2005; and a second collection of poetry, Moving Day, which was nominated for both the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize and the City of Victoria Butler Book Prize in 2006. A second collection of short fiction, The End of the Ice Age, came out with Biblioasis in 2010. In 2008, he was awarded the Prime Minister's Award for Teaching Excellence. More recently he received a National Magazine Award for his poem “The Bear,” and was the 2019 winner of the Nick Blatchford Occasional Verse Contest. Young lives in Victoria, BC.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book came out in 1999, and I can say that it certainly allowed me to feel more legitimate as a teacher of creative writing. It also gave me more confidence with regard to my own ability and instincts as a writer, especially when it was nominated for the GG. Because Signal Editions published the book, I was afforded an opportunity to revisit Montreal, which I had not seen since 1970. It is a glorious city, one I would like to explore more. Much of the collection came out of my MFA at UBC, where I worked with George McWhirter, who was and continues to be a thoroughly gifted and professional teacher and editor. I was lucky to study with him. Many of the poems were, as he liked to call them, “lyrical narratives,” and, in that regard, much of what I write today follows in the same vein. Since I didn’t start writing seriously until my 30s – no poetry until my 40s – I have no juvenilia that might provide a contrast between an early style and a later one. What I write now is similar in tone and content to what I wrote then.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I started teaching creative writing in 1990 as a way of re-inventing my teaching. The shift was profound. Students suddenly began to care very much about their writing, about language, even grammar. They took the exercises I invented seriously and cheered each other on when they shared their work. In solidarity, I would write along with them, challenging myself to be as honest and committed as they were. I had written fiction previously, and several of my stories had been published in Canadian journals, but poetry was a new venture. Luckily, I had many great models, particularly the poetry of my wife Patricia, and I used her poems and the poems of other contemporary Canadian and American poets to inspire both myself and my students. It was important to introduce writers whose work was appearing in places like The Malahat Review, Event Magazine, Fiddlehead, Prairie Fire rather than to invoke the canon. Poetry had to be living and current for it to be relevant to the young writers I was trying to encourage. In the mid-90s, I applied to UBC and was accepted to their MFA program, and because I had more of a work ethic than what I’d had in my early twenties at university, I was able to produce draft manuscripts in both short fiction and poetry in the time I was there.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
I have a theory. I believe I write when I have stored up enough of life to have something to say. Until then, I remain fairly unproductive, content to edit work or revisit old drafts, practising the craft, but not covering any new ground. At some point, a day comes when I find myself thinking of someone or something, and a line will present itself, then another, and before long I have a draft of a story or a poem. Often the draft will appear all in one go, if it’s a poem, or in a couple of weeks if it’s a story. Currently, I am part of a group of writers who share their writing in order to accelerate the process of arriving at a final draft. Occasionally, I will write an idea down, worried that I might forget it, but more often than not I am content to let my mind drift obliquely toward the thing it wants to say. It’s not a particularly rigorous regime, but it works for me. I am not prolific, nor do I feel driven to write. Perhaps, if I had started writing when I was young, I might have developed some kind of process, but at this point in my life I think I’m content to set down those things that I know to be true, few though those things might be.
4 - Where does a poem or work of prose usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I wrote a novel that started as three short stories, which I decided to amalgamate into a single arc. It seemed to work, although I’m not sure it would work again. Overall, though, I write in discrete units, a poem or a story, and I don’t have any overall theme or pattern that connects them apart from those aspects of myself that emerge in everything I write. When I have enough of one form, I will arrange them in some kind of an order that I think makes sense and then send the collection out to a publisher. I have written only one novel, but I have several rough drafts that I return to every now and then hoping to find a way to finish them. So far, I have quite a way to go before that day comes.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Teaching showed to me that I liked an audience, that I enjoyed the kind of energy created in a classroom, whether it was in presenting a poem or a lesson on the participle or the analysis of a Richard Ford story. So, reading my own poems to a group of people – an arrogance I never inflicted on my students during any of my years as a teacher – felt similar in that I understood the necessity to engage meaningfully, to be clear, to animate the work successfully. Since my retirement a few years ago, I almost can’t imagine how I managed to sustain that kind of engagement for days on end – thirty-five years – and now with the isolation of Covid, the idea of standing in front of a crowd seems singularly horrifying, but I’m sure I will meet the challenge when it comes.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I am not normally a polemicist, at least not in my fiction. I do not write to support an argument or counter one, nor do I write to demonstrate a particular truth, by which I mean I do not set out to do so. If in the writing a certain truth emerges, it does not do so by design but because that’s where following my nose led me. George Orwell once said that any writing of his that was not political was usually bad writing, so I’m sure he would consider me a bad writer. Some of my poems, the lighter ones usually, will address an idea, a social phenomenon, often humorously. Poems like “Younger Than That Now,” “The Things They Ruined,” “The Latest Trends” and “Food: A Fairy Tale” from this current collection arose from various ideas: speciesism, commodification of personal taste, entrenched indifference to the planet, the need for plant-based diets. Most of these issues are fairly current, but there are larger ones that I haven’t addressed, like the question of the human experiment, whether it is coming to an end. We seem unable to move beyond our tribalistic natures, the systemic racism and identity politics that grow out of this aspect of humankind. As a result, we are paralyzed when it comes to tackling the problems of climate change, poverty, hunger, education that beset us, and our failure to do so may well spell our doom.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he/they even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I believe the Horatian platitude that poetry/writing should both “entertain and instruct” still applies today, but apart from that, I don’t believe there is one single role for writers. The world is large enough to accommodate the autobiographical fiction of Elena Farrante and the didacticism of Richard Powers’ The Overstory. Some writers express doubts about the entertainment aspect. Arundhati Roy left fiction behind for twenty years because she felt, in part, that there were more urgent issues requiring her attention – she also said that “unless fiction becomes disobedient, it will become irrelevant” – and Rachel Cusk declared at one point that she was no longer interested in making up characters, that she could no longer see the point. For poets, irrelevance is a chronic state of mind, especially in light of the inarguable truth that the readership of poetry is predominantly made up of poets. However, I think the imperative to examine one’s life still applies, too, and good poetry performs the amazing feat of being both extremely particular and universal at the same time, as in Tony Hoagland’s America or Elizabeth Bishop’s One Art.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I can’t imagine not needing an outside editor, at least not at my stage of development as a writer, whether it is a friend whose advice I value – I am thinking of the members of my writing group – or an in-house editor assigned to me by a press. I was lucky to have John Barton as the editor of my last poetry collection, Moving Day, and Michael Harris edited my first book, The Island in Winter. Both were extremely helpful. I have also to thank Elaine Park and Nicola Goshulak, who pored over the current book and prevented many embarrassments. I know several writers who do not find editorial assistance all that useful, mostly because they are content to sit on poems for a very long time before releasing them into the world. I am a little impatient, I guess, but I also find that I am usually too close to see the infelicities of language in my writing. I often liken writing a poem to cutting a path through a forest. Because I built it, when I walk along it I instinctively avoid the tree roots and stones I failed to address in the path’s construction; but anyone who hikes this path for a first time may trip and stumble, and these are the very hazards that I need to know about. As to whether the process is difficult, I think the better word is challenging. One can be too amenable to changes, and one can also be too resistant. Ego can’t disappear entirely, but it has to learn to take a back seat.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
I have always loved what bp nichol said: “If I use an adjective, I am saying my noun is weak.” That one observation was my first introduction to the self-indulgent art of over-modification. I have never forgotten it, although am occasionally guilty of ignoring it.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to short stories to the novel)? What do you see as the appeal?
In my experience, nothing about writing of any kind is easy. It is true that I do write in several genres, non-fiction included, but I believe that every poem, every story, every essay has its own learning curve. It’s as though we study the art afresh every time we undertake to practice it, or that we at least learn something new. Something similar happens in music, too. Sometimes, one can hear a chord and find it dissonant and ugly, but later, as one learns more about the subtleties of tone, the same chord can sound beautiful. The appeal of different genres is the same appeal that different geographies hold for the traveller. I am a child of the west coast, but I’m also happy to visit the prairies. Also, I am, as I have said, a narrative poet, so the jump to story is not quite so huge for me as it might be for some other poet.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
If I’m into a project like a story or a novel, I will usually begin to work around 8:00 AM and push through to the early afternoon. Even if I am not working on something specific, I am in front of my computer before 9:00, dealing with emails or editing work for submission to magazines. A break from writing usually consists of some time in the vegetable garden or a walk through the neighborhood or along the seafront. During Covid, this routine has been fairly consistent, needless to say, and winter keeps us fairly housebound, too; but in fairer weather, we will retreat to our cabin and work from there.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
The best thing for me in such a situation is simply to leave and tackle some project unrelated to writing. What seems to happen then is that my subconscious continues to work on the problem, so that when I come back to my desk the following day, a solution will present itself.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Sweet peas. My mother grew them in the backyard every year and would place bouquets of them around the house. It is impossible to smell them and not think of her or of the dining room on a summer day.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Elements of all those influences appear in my writing, but perhaps nature plays the strongest part, and by nature I mean the particular geography of the west coast where I live. I have not written any ekphrastic poetry, and unlike Jan Conn, say, I haven’t the scientific background that might lead me to write in depth about a specific area of science such as botany. And apart from a few allusions to songs or musicians, I have not made music the central focus of any of my poetry or fiction. The nature that I incorporate into my poems and stories is the general backdrop of my life: the rainforest, the ocean, Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands, the interior of BC.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Teaching creative writing pushed me to find writers whose work would have an impact in class in terms of both style and content. So, I selected stories like “Emergency” by Denis Johnson, “Jon” by George Saunders, “Cathedral” by Ray Carver, “A Windy Day at the Reservoir” by Ann Beattie, and a host of others by Lorrie Moore, Amy Hempel, Joy Williams, Tobias Wolff, Karen Russell, Bill Gaston, John Gould, Annabel Lyon, Marian Farrant, Mark Jarman, to mention just a few. In terms of poetry, as I have said, I rifled the contents of literary journals for poems by Philip Levine, Tony Hoagland, Donald Hall, Jane Kenyon, Stephen Dunn, Claudia Rankine, Richard Siken, Louise Glück, Karen Solie, Patrick Friesen, Eve Joseph, Patricia Young, Sharon McCartney and many others. By presenting these writers to students, I was also presenting them to myself, using them as models for my own writing and as sources of inspiration and enjoyment. Sharing a powerful poem or story with a group of eager, bright writing students is one of the things I miss about teaching.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
There are parts of BC I would like to see. My father was a surveyor, and he knew every square inch of the province. There are places he spoke about that still resonate, even though he has been gone now almost forty years. More immediately, I would like to see my very new granddaughter, Odette, who was born Dec. 6th, in Halifax. Covid has made travel unsafe for people of my age, for anyone, really, so I will have to wait a few more months for that pleasure.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
Hmmm. I have always considered myself a teaching writer or a writing teacher, but not solely a writer. I fell into teaching first, when student debt and a new baby daughter compelled me to abandon law school. Luckily, I found teaching not only manageable, but also rewarding. Writing came a while later. Over the years, I have come to believe that I would have made a terrible lawyer, so I don’t regret having to give up my place at the bar. There was a time when I thought I might like to act, but the few experiences I have had on stage cured me of that misguided ambition. What remains is a rather vague desire to have pursued some life that was a little closer to nature, farming perhaps, or something aligned with conservation. There is no secret Walter Mitty in my head, eager to fly a plane into battle, canoe over a waterfall or swim the English Channel. Perhaps, if I really practice hard, though, I might master Debussy’s Clair de Lune on the guitar.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Why did I pick up the pen as opposed to an artist’s brush, say? Well, living with a writer will have that effect on people. When I introduced creative writing as a course to my school, it wasn’t long before almost all of my English teaching colleagues not only wanted to teach a similar course, but also developed the urge to become writers themselves – several of them went on to publish books and are continuing to write today. Perhaps the parade of local writers coming into my classroom infected them, but I believe many people entertain the idea of writing one day, especially people like me, who majored in English and French literature. They just need a catalyst to set them going.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I recently finished The West Coast of Vancouver Island: 1762-1962, a book my father loved, and it is certainly a finely researched and illuminating account of the history of the area. Currently, I am now into Dede Crane’s One Madder Woman, again a thoroughly researched work, one that imagines the life of Berthe Morisot and her time as one of the few female impressionist painters. As for poetry, I have Patrick Friesen’s latest selected, Outlasting the Weather on my desk, a gem of a book. The last great film I saw was last night’s choice, when Patricia and I watched Fellini’s 8 1/2, which neither of us had ever seen.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I have a collection of stories that is almost finished. I still want to see a few more of them published in journals before I send out the collection. After that, we’ll have to wait and see.